Painting the lilies blooming outside her apartment was supposed to be a one-time fancy for Ginger Harness, a simple gesture to liven up a bare wooden fence outside her door. A quarter century later, what began as a lark has become a springtime tradition for her Napa neighborhood, and for visitors from farther afield.
The blossoms adorning the flower beds of Rohlffs Manor again received their seasonal daubs of turquoise, raspberry coral and other hues, in time for the latest version of the Calla Lily Alley, a free gallery of painted lilies that Harness began in 1994 and reopened on Saturday.
Over the years, the number of lilies-turned-canvases has grown to some 250, as has the number of visitors taking in the blend of natural and artistic beauty – along with Harness’s commitment to keep decorating the lilies for as long as possible.
“I’m just turning 70, and I’m gonna keep doing it until I can’t do it,” she said Sunday outside the Rohlffs apartment she has called home for 30 years. A few feet from her front door was a half-open shed filled with spray cans of a special flower pigment – formulated to avoid blocking pores – she will use to color later-maturing lilies as the early-blooming ones wilt.
Outside Harness’s apartment, a steady stream of families with children, and groups of friends young and old, strolled a driveway past flower beds freshly dotted with Easter-egg pastels that gleamed in the midday sun. Sandwich-board signs guided drivers from Linda Vista Avenue toward the painted lilies, which will remain on display daily through about May 15 “Mother Nature willing,” according to Harness.
The day before, more than 100 people had taken in the calla lily display on the official opening day – after others already had made early visits following a Facebook posting and a San Francisco television report last week.
“I wanted to come out to wine country anyway, but I also wanted to make a special trip to see the flowers,” said Jeff Dong, who with his wife and children had arrived from San Francisco for their first look at the painted lilies. “We thought it would be a nice place to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.”
Such attention from newcomers, and anticipation by locals, was far from Harness’ mind when she first had the notion of adding a touch of color and Easter spirit to the spiral-like lily petals at Rohlffs, a seniors’ apartment complex on Fair Drive in west Napa.
“I thought it was just a onetime thing, but it just became one of those things where people would say, ‘When are you gonna paint the lilies?’” Harness said Sunday between greeting spectators. The following spring in 1995, “the garbage man came to me as the lilies were blooming and said, “When are you gonna paint those lilies?’”
“It seems to cross the boundaries, all the age groups, all the generations. Laborers, city workers, ambulance drivers – they all pull through. I get a lot of people who say this is their route home from work, because it just makes them feel so good.”
Some first-time visitors to the Napa flower display made sure to share the experience with friends.
“Took one look at it and said, ‘that’s what we have to do’ – we’re all April babies, spring is our time, and this definitely says spring in big, bold letters,” said Terry Blue of Santa Rosa, who learned of the Calla Lily Alley on TV and convinced her friends Charlotte Fry and Gale Grubb to stroll the flowers with her.
“We used to reminisce about (painting) Easter eggs, and this reminded us of how much we used to love to mix colors,” added Fry. “In these times, it’s nice to know that people can do something just to make other people smile.”
For still another visitor on Sunday, the calla lilies were not only an ornament but an inspiration.
“I think we’re gonna try to do this today as an Easter egg experiment,” said Ezjra Sander-Hewitt of Browns Valley as she and Sierra Minchaca paused to study bunches of the color-splashed petals. “I have calla lilies at home, so maybe I can give a gift to the neighborhood.”
The Calla Lily Alley’s creator, meanwhile, admitted that some acquaintances have asked how much longer she can summon the weeks of work the exhibit requires – but quickly added the experience has invigorated her.
“It makes me young,” she said. “I have plenty of creative outlets, I love people, and I love to talk to people. It’s a win-win-win all around. It makes me happy, so why would I want to stop?”